Safety First...Safety Last, October 31 2015 - Mark Rafferty
Climbing Joshua Tree 2015

Many people look at rock climbing as being a super dangerous sport. However in reality rock climbing can be one of the safest things you can do, if you know how to properly use the gear. Tonight was one of those huge wake up moments in climbing. Tyler, Jacob, and I set off today to climb the Washington Column. Grade wise for aid and free is relatively easy but we wanted to at least get some experience before doing El Capitan. At the end of the third pitch is what is called the dinner ledge. Which is where most people will haul their bags up, leave the camping gear below and continue to climb up and fix ropes for the next two pitches for the following day. Camping on dinner ledge your able to get an early start about 1/3 up the wall.

With the route being so clustered with parties, arriving at the ledge we we're told that there is an additional ledge just about 20 ft left of the main that sits right below another climb. A lot of times people will use the first few pitches of this climb to pass parties on the main route. Wanting to get ahead we did just that. We set up camp on a separate bivy and Jacob lead the C2+ aid route. Reaching the anchors we fixed our rope for the morning along with the other two parties in the wall. As we finished eating of dinner and starting to get settled for bed the other two parties were just finishing setting up their fixed ropes. Being that it was only 7:30 pm I spent the next hour looking up at the stars and trying to force myself to sleep.


Tossing and turning to get comfy I hear a third party above us rappelling down. Looked as if they had tipped out rather later and were rappelling in the dark. Half way down the wall they run into the other two parties fixed ropes. Being courteous the hollered down asking if it was okay to rappel off their fixes lines. Given permission they started to do so. A few minutes go by and I'm right back to my twisting and turning. When all the sudden I hear this loud thud that hit close by us. All of us kinda wondering what it was assumed it was either a rappel rope or perhaps they may have dropped a haul bag or something. About to ignore it I hear one clobber from above yelling "Ethan!?" As if something bad has happened. Really concerned I got up quickly to look and there was Ethan laying face down on a 4th class ramp between us and dinner ledge. Frantically I yell to the others saying that Ethan fell. I could tell he was unconscious and want moving. Tyler, being a certified outdoor medic, went down to make sure he was okay. As the others below called 911. Tyler being very careful is looking for a pulse. Trying again and again he feels nothing. Tyler then was giving his best analysis on how he thinks Ethan's condition was. After minutes without a pulse or movement the doctor gave him the go to flip Ethan over and if possible to do CPR. Checking his pulse again there was no heart beat. The doctors asked if Tyler could check his pupils to see if they would change dilation to his headlamp but there was no response. After conversing back and forth for minutes we declared Ethan dead at 9:01 pm.


After getting back to the base of the climb we later come to the conclusion that Ethan had rappeled off the top fixed line to the other set of anchors. However when he was switching over to the other rope, he clipped back into the fixed rope he previously rapped off of and rappeled off the end of the fixed line. Falling 200+ feet onto the ledge between us and dinner ledge. Seeing this happen is something I'm never going to forget and in fact am still struggling to rapp my head around. Anything can happen while climbing. The biggest thing is to always double check yourself and your partner before doing anything. Even if it's rappelling, always always check. It may seem redundant at times but to avoid accidents like this it's very necessary.

Please pray for Ethan and his family as they go through this time of grief. Pray for all climbers for their safety. We all have a time to leave this earth, the only thing we can do about it is extended the dates little by little by being safe. As for Tyler, Jacob, and I with our big wall plans. We will see how everyone is feeling after tomorrow when we have to go back up to retrieve the gear we had to leave on the ledge. I guess we will see. Be safe climbers. Safety first, safety last.